Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


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Other British Museum reviews

I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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